[Note: I am catching up with posting bits and pieces of writing that have not yet been posted here. This was actually published in The Age last November - preempting the recent events at The Tote and The Arthouse. Umm, told you so?]
MELBOURNE does the small scale better than any other Australian city – or at least, up until now. A newly enlightened approach north of the border and an ever-tightening set of rules in Victoria mean that roles could be reversing very soon.
Urban Melbourne has long been a place of unique possibilities for artists, musicians, and creative people from the rest of Australia. The brain-drain of the young, enthusiastic and talented has worked dramatically in Victoria’s favour for quite some time now. Inevitably, one of the things that cultural refugees to Victoria cite is Melbourne’s impressive smallness. Melbourne does the little things in cultural life exceptionally well. Melbourne’s richness comes from the incredible critical mass of small-scale cultural communities, venues, and galleries that have a foothold in the city. It simply hasn’t been possible in other Australian cities.
As a festival director in Melbourne, you’re spoilt for choice. Organisers of festivals such as the Melbourne Fringe, Next Wave or the fashion festival are blessed with an abundance of bars, cafes, small venues and other spaces. They’ve long been cheap, flexible and easily available to suitable quality projects. In other cities, the challenge can be about finding any venues. In Melbourne, it’s long been about finding the right one from the many options available.
It’s been working so well that Sydney has cottoned on. NSW has pushed through major reforms of its licensing laws and the rules governing live performance that make it relatively easy to present live music and performance across the state. Sydney’s live music and entertainment scene is open to new players, and with any luck, in the near future, small-scale venues will emerge again.
At the very same time, Victoria is experiencing an unprecedented crackdown. In Melbourne it is getting harder to put on shows in the city. Victoria’s new liquor licensing Compliance Directorate has begun zealously cracking down on live music and performance. Armed with rules long on the books but rarely enforced, compliance officers are travelling Victoria putting small venues on notice. Under the rules, any entertainment involving “live or recorded amplified music other than background music” now comes with the requirement of two security guards for the first 100 people and one for every hundred on top of that. The costs of small-scale live entertainment could shoot through the roof.
The rules are broad enough to require two bouncers for almost anything involving a PA: every avant-garde theatre performance; every experimental noise music gig; every solo dance performance; or any other event at a licensed venue that is louder than “background music”. Hundreds, if not thousands, of events from fringe theatre shows to folk bands in beer gardens become uneconomical. Some of the best shows I’ve seen would breach it and yet were so small that two security guards would represent a significant proportion of the audience.
The reality is that most artists aren’t entrepreneurs. Most shows rarely make a lot of money. The question is more often one of “how much can we afford to lose?” not “how much will we make”. For bands, venues, and performance companies in that position, the obviously unnecessary cost of two security guards can be the difference between putting on a show and calling the whole thing off. Clearly the rules are intended to keep a check on antisocial behaviour but the cost burden for everyone who wants to play a fiddle, offer an open mic poetry slam or put on an interpretive dance performance to music in a beer garden verges on ridiculous.
Culturally it’s the wrong move at the wrong time and risks throwing away Melbourne’s hard-earned reputation for coolness and innovation. Recent developments in NSW are driven by the recognition that cities need more small venues and not fewer of them. As our cities have grown, in many ways our cultures have shrunk — a rich cultural life demands the possibility of being able to do many different things in viable small spaces.
Surely some reworking of the rules or discretion is in order?
The licensed venues that cause all the trouble are rarely if ever the places where this kind of small-scale activity takes place. A poorly managed crackdown risks making small venues untenable, small culture shrivel up, and in turn forcing more people to larger venues with louder music and more problems. Unthinkably and even more terrifyingly, it could force the next generation of creative minds north to Sydney.
Originally Published in The Age 30th November 2009.
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